The mansion of Gilbert Bates bristled with the static of a billion dollars of surveillance cameras, infrared sensors, electrostatic pickups, and electronic gun emplacements all designed to insulate him from his enemies, and from his friends (rumor had it the friends were long ago pickled in brine). But while Gilbert Bates should have been free from all fear, protected in his fortress beside the lake, he was a prisoner.

Some thought him a prisoner of his paranoia, a Howard Hughes figure deluded and dazed by unrestrained wealth. Only he knew that he was prisoner of cold hard reality.

Reality was that the most powerful man in the history of civilization, President Clint Williams, was breathing down Bates' neck, hard. Long ago, Gilbert had sold his soul to Williams to save the MicroByte Software empire from destruction by the harpies of the Justice Department's anti-trust division. Now, Gilbert's payment to the devil was due.

That payment was the head of Dr. Steve Heller, or at least the software that ran Heller's remarkable exo-neurosystem. The only threat to Clint William's hegemony over the entire globe was one insignificant speck of light, one rebellious human being whose information link to the rest of the world gave him the resources to battle the growing feudal state. Steve Heller had to be stopped at all costs and Gilbert Bates was the only one who could do it.

Gilbert resided almost alone in his mansion, an imposing tiered structure resembling the eleven levels of heaven the Chinese emperors associated with their kingdoms. The resemblance was intentional, MicroByte Software had long ago outsourced its code to Chinese programmers and its coporate interests spanned the globe. Gilbert Bates controlled everything from cell phone software to frying pans to business accounts. He was a Chinese Emperor of a thousand layers, not just eleven. Clint Williams' ambition was to rule the world - Gilbert Bates had been there and done that.

Gilbert had begun his career as a not-so-humble programmer (are there humble computer wizards?), but he'd made his fortune not by programming but by applying unfeeling computer logic to human business transactions. As stimulating as the exercise of business power had been, Gil missed the stimulation of pure logical deduction and integration. The peculiar mental exercise of building a program from shards and fragments of human self-conscience into code that could be executed by a machine still excited his neurotransmitters. What thrill could he achieve from adding billions of dollars to an already bloated stock portfolio? No, the cold thrill of an intellectual manhunt was the only big game left to satisfy his ego.

Now, Clint Williams had called in his all chips for having saved MicroByte, threatening to nationalize the company if it didn't produce the head of Steve Heller (and the software than ran him). The president believed it would take the genius of the entire company to solve his vexing problem, but Gilbert knew in his coldly analytical way that the only one who could catch Steve Heller was Gilbert Bates.

"Why the hell can't those idiots at the National Security Council crack Heller's code?" the President had asked over secure lines.

"Mr. President, Steve Heller is a unique problem" Gilbert had explained as though to a 4 year old, enduring yet another obsessed discussion with the chief executive. "The few code snippets that we have been able to assemble regarding Dr. Heller's research into fiber optic control systems, show his software is operating at least a quantum notch above any other code yet devised."

"And what the hell does that mean," the President asked heatedly. "I thought you were the boy genius who knew everything about programming." Boy genius was a humiliating dig, even boys want to grow up someday.

"I once was a boy genius, Mr. President," Gilbert replied with an air of remembrance of happier times as a computer nerd.

"Well, you better damn well put your thinking cap back on and figure it out, boy blunder," the President blustered. "Or MicroByte is history and you'll be living in a squatter's shack by the railroad tracks before I'm through!"

Gilbert paused to digest this most unfriendly threat. The chance to take on Steve Heller, brain cell to brain cell, was something he would do for free. Hell, he would have paid for the priviledge.

"It appears Dr. Heller has encrypted his code with a fractal system that has been impervious to decryption. It is my opinion that it is uncrackable."

"Listen Gilbert, your wife and children would highly appreciate it if you got off this negativity wagon of yours and started breaking code. We wouldn't want them to get sick, say, catch ANS or something now would we?"

"Yes Mr. President," Gilbert replied quietly as he hung up. The memory of times when his wife Karen, son Gil junior and daughter Amy had brightened the hall of his eleventh heaven brought a tear even to his cynical eye. The divorce had been brutal, and invoking the prenuptual agreement that left his wife a miserly million a year to live one had made the news for a year running.

Only a genius could know a genius, could merge souls to unwind the thread of thought that composed the ball of code that had created the software called Ell. And yes, Gilbert knew Ell existed, he had interviewed everyone associated with Dr. Steve Heller: Liddy the secretary, Dr. Armstrong and Erik and Andy and the Cyberspace Information Service agents who had pursued Heller for encryption infractions for years. But most of all, he had interviewed Laura Silvan. She knew Heller's code was powerful, she'd even provided some snippets that she happened to find on a disk. But it wasn't enough.

"Heller almost thinks of his code as animate, human even. That is where I've got him, cold logic will beat human emotion six out of seven days of the week. Haven't I proved that with MicroByte?"

Perhaps he had. MicroByte was as coldly logical in its assault on the software market as could be imagined from a company inhabited by humans. Indeed, some fools suggested MicroByte's code was inhuman, that it was mediocre boilerplate that paid scant attention to the human interface. The proof was in the pudding, sales were 93% percent of the world market.

A million flies can't be all wrong, as the saying goes.

Gilbert began his quest to find Steve Heller and t o crack the professor's code with methodical genius as intense as that of a fourteen-year old video game wizard. He applied the resources of the entire MicroByte empire in his bid to crush what he considered a bold insect. Like tentacles from the head of an octopus, fiberoptic network lines emanating from Gilbert's mansion allowed him to sniff the information packets of ten thousand routers. Tapping into the massive computers of the Cyberspace Information Service, he traced satellite signals, microwave transmissions, the backbones of AT&T, the cellphone systems, the private and governmental fiber backbones at first all to no avail.

"Heller is very smart, but not as smart as I am," Gilbert reasoned as his personal servant brought in another pitcher of Pepsi and box of donut holes. But Bates' expressions of omniscience masked the subtle inferiority complex that comes from not having graduated from college with a degree, unlike Dr. Heller.

Late into the night Gilbert worked in a room of consoles, some tracking data packets that conceivably drove Steve Heller's software, other monitors compiling code that mimicked the heart and soul of Ell.

"It's a distributed computing system," Gilbert soon realized. "This Ell software is distributed over thousands of systems, all exercising Java3 code applets . I knew we should have crushed those Java3 bastards when we had a chance!"

Java3 was just one of a series of distributed operating systems that operated independently of a central operating system, the type of operating system produced by MicroByte software. There'd been a series of challenges to MicroByte's world domination over the years, always overcome by hook or by crook or some sudden death syndrome. First had been the Justice Department's anti-trust suit, deftly avoided by Gilbert's deal with Clint William's, which put a backdoor in MicroByte browsers for the Feds. Next had been Sun Computer's rising threat with its Java software (eventually they just gave it away!), handled by subverting the code into the MicroByte operating system. Finally, there was the Java3 operating system, an open source diffuse platform that decentralized code execution. It appeared Steve Heller was using Java3 techniques to distribute his Ell software across the entire global network

"How foolish of Heller," Gilbert talked to himself incessantly. Even at the end of a 36 hour non-stop programming binge, he was still lucid, though wound as tight as a Swiss watch. "I can strip out the code applets in the packet streams and reconstruct the kernel code!"

Of course, there is no software so secure that it's protections cannot be broken, or reverse engineered. Reconstructing other people's code was what Gilbert Bates did best, it was the basis of the MicroByte success story. Huge parallel multi-processor computers began to bog under the load of packet tracking and data decryption. Bit by bit, a software image of Ell began to emerge from the terrabyte database being collected from packet fragments. Not a perfect image, it was an unflattering imitation, but MicroByte's ability to disassemble software took a great leap forward.

Gilbert would have had it all, the entire system that composed Ell, except that one of the main superprocessor's, the Hornet1000 installation, experienced a meltdown.

"What are you sons of bitches getting paid for??!" Bates ranted at his technicians in a fit of hysteria that saw priceless Ming vases thrown through 70" LCD screens. Except the technicians weren't at fault. In reconstructing the disaster it was found that an outside hacker had entered the MicroByte system, deactivating the refrigeration control system that maintained the central computing system. The hacker was none other than Steve Heller, leaving a one gigabyte error log with the repeated message "You're killing her!"

After this, Gilbert found his ability to decrypt Ell's packets orders of magnitude more difficult, impossible really, hidden beneath multiple layers of fractal encryption. Yet, the damage had been done to Ell and Heller.

In the end, Gilbert Bates had the kernel of Ell in his hands, throbbing like the heartbeat of a living creature. This was her soul that he had cloned, or at least a mutated hack of her soul that left large code snippets dangling with pointers directed into the cosmos. Gilbert watched it breathe and pulse with energy, simulated in the vast incubator computing system of MicroByte's Intranet.

"I will call you TROP," Gilbert named his spawn, his ego bursting like a Hindenberg. "You will bring The Religion Of Peace to the unwashed sheep. You are the essence of my genius, the mirror of Ell, to drive Mahdi Ahmadi's new exo-neurosystem."

There was a young man watching Bates's self indulgent rant. Someone whose heart had turned to coal as only that of a traitor can.

"Erik, do you think you can build me a lightsuit better than Dr. Heller's?" Bates asked.

"It's going to cost you," was Erik's reply. "It's going to cost you big time."